How to Assess an Innovation Training Program
As innovation becomes an important skill set, large organizations will seek to obtain training for their employees. We stand on the brink of an innovation training “land rush” with few rules and little information to identify the best programs. Evaluating an innovation training program is critical. Assess programs based on their depth, the experience of the trainers, the referenced body of knowledge and the inclusion of practical examples and hands-on exercises. Ignore certifications, because no standard exists.
Over the last 30 years businesses have progressed through at least three significant strategic changes. The first was the focus on quality. Consumers became aware of quality issues and demanded higher quality products. These demands required a focus on designing for quality and building quality into the manufacturing processes. The heightened focus on quality reduced variation, reduced errors and introduced statistical process into manufacturing. The next strategic wave was based on Lean and Six Sigma. Lean and Six Sigma defined processes even more tightly, eliminating process gaps, creating tighter controls on processes, eliminating variances. The final strategic wave was based on down-sizing and outsourcing. Any task that could be eliminated was eliminated. Any job that could be outsourced to a lower wage location was outsourced. This had the effect of honing an already efficient and effective process even further, but made the process very rigid and fragile, unable to respond to sudden shifts in the market or environment.
Management strategies focused on efficiency have perfected a structured, efficient but ultimately rigid and inflexible operating model just as innovation becomes important.
These management strategies have left most companies with a highly structured, rigid and inflexible operating model that excels at turning out existing products, but which struggles to create new products or adjust rapidly to market needs. Management strategies focused on efficiency have perfected a structured, efficient but ultimately rigid and inflexible operating model just as innovation becomes important. These management strategies have perfected a model that is appropriate for a competitive market that is rapidly evolving, as new competition and new demands are just beginning. The shift in the market is driven by four significant trends:
- Falling trade barriers. Free trade is increasing, and with it increases competition and new sources of products and services
- Increasing rate of change. Consumers adopt new products and services at an ever increasing rate, so product life cycles are becoming shorter. Consumers demand new features and new products at an increasing rate of change.
- Increasing distribution of knowledge and education. The West held a monopoly on secondary and higher education for decades, but that monopoly is crumbling. Excellent educational opportunities are available globally, and through the web. Better information and education will result in more competitors with better products.
- Falling cost of entry. Today it is far easier to enter a market than it ever was previously. Online selling and marketing channels, social media and other capabilities supported by the Internet allow small and large companies from any continent to enter any market much more quickly.
Obtaining innovation skills is becoming crucial to organizational success.
The net result of these trends is that just as businesses optimize a highly efficient business model based on long product cycles and little variation or variability, demand cycles and expectations are changing rapidly to demand innovation at an increasing rate. Innovation, creativity and imagination are far more important in the business world today because of these shifts. Obtaining these new skills is crucial to organizational success.
Innovation skill development is in demand
The four trends identified above indicate that many companies must increase innovation skills while retaining an efficient operating model. No firm can afford to ignore the skills and capabilities it has built or the operating model that has been shaped over time, but neither can it afford to ignore the rising demands for more innovation. The demand for innovation exposes a critical gap, however: a lack of innovation skills, knowledge and training across most organizations. The gap is caused by a lack of focus, not a lack of training.
Organizations have spent heavily on training to improve quality, reduce variance (Six Sigma) and reduce waste and inefficiency (Lean). Innovation has been overlooked as a skill set or competency.
In most organizations it is relatively simple to find people who have had extensive training in quality, Six Sigma, Lean and a host of other tools and methodologies intended to provide more efficiency and effectiveness. Organizations are littered with green belts, black belts and people with certification in process methodologies, statistical process control and a host of other capabilities. But few people have had access in their scholastic education or in corporate training to innovation and creativity skills. In fact, at a time when innovation skills and capabilities are growing in demand, few people can claim any experience or training in these critical skills. Organizations have spent heavily on training to improve quality, reduce variance (Six Sigma) and reduce waste and inefficiency (Lean). Innovation has been overlooked as a skill set or competency.
The ability to innovate has traditionally been considered an innate skill, one that people are born with. Ask a number of people about their innovation capabilities and most will respond that they aren’t innovative. Some may respond that they are creative, or good at generating ideas, but very few will define themselves as innovative. Yet many companies expect that their employees will generate a range of meaningful, valuable ideas almost on demand. This is probably the biggest innovation challenge of them all –obtaining relevant, valuable ideas from people who aren’t convinced they are innovative, who lack innovation training and have conflicting goals and metrics.
The rush to offer innovation training
A land rush is underway to stake out innovation training programs to fulfill expected corporate demand. Many companies are offering innovation training with little background or experience.
What is happening now is completely predictable. The demand for innovative products and services will force many companies to admit their skills and capabilities are lacking. This recognition, in turn, will generate far greater demand for innovation training, skills development and skills certification. A wide array of organizations will enter the market to offer innovation training and “certification”. History tells us that in response to new demand, new offerings and new solutions will emerge. Some of these new solutions will be based on sound experience and pedagogy; some will be fly by night organizations seeking to cash in on new and unformed demand. A land rush is underway to stake out innovation training programs to fulfill expected corporate demand. Many companies are offering innovation training with little background or experience.
Given the disconnected nature of innovation, the lack of standards and absence of a common definition, any firm can define innovation and the core set of tools, methods and skills. The lack of standards and the increasing demand will allow any firm to enter the market and offer innovation training, regardless of their experience, knowledge or capability. Three significant errors are likely:
- First, training programs may define innovation too narrowly – as a specific tool or activity. Innovation is a system, encompassing corporate strategy, people, defined processes and corporate culture. Understanding how innovation works within a large organization requires experience implementing innovation in an organization, and understanding the breadth and depth of innovation as an activity.
- Second, teaching innovation as an academic exercise. While the theory and content can be presented in a classroom environment, innovation is a hands-on, interactive and immersive activity.
- Third, innovation training led by people who lack real world innovation experience. Innovation differs from other management philosophies in that it often runs counter to prevailing strategic or operational logic, rather than reinforcing or improving the existing model. Cultural attitudes, behaviors and expectations must be addressed, which requires practical experience.
As innovation skills become far more important, managers and executives seeking innovation training must tread carefully. Far too many firms and educational institutions will define and market “innovation” training and certification programs. While innovation training and skills are in high demand, it is critical that anyone considering innovation training evaluate any organization offering innovation training, to ascertain if the program will deliver real skills and value. The range of firms and educational institutions offering innovation training and certification, and the breadth and depth of innovation activities will create confusion and may hamper decisions about specific programs. We’ve developed five characteristics or attributes of robust innovation training program.
How to assess an innovation training program
Breadth and depth of the program
Innovation is not a discrete activity, but is rapidly becoming a business discipline. Training programs that equate innovation with brainstorming or idea generation, without further defining the entire “end to end” innovation process are focusing on one narrow phase or step of the innovation activity. Yes, your team may need to improve idea generation skills, but this is simply one set of skills in an innovation process. Ignoring the other phases of innovation will simply accelerate the generation of ideas that aren’t valuable. Focus on innovation training programs that define an “end to end” innovation process which includes:
- Defining a strategic opportunity or problem
- Gathering trends and market insights
- Observing and gathering customer needs
- Generating ideas internally or externally or both
- Capturing, managing, evaluating and selecting ideas
- Testing new concepts with pilot customers
- Evaluating and protecting intellectual property
If the innovation training does not respect the concept of innovation as a broad competency, then your training is narrowly focused, too reliant on a specific tool or framework.
Each of these steps requires specific skills and insights, and may define new roles in your organization. If the innovation training does not respect the concept of innovation as a broad competency, then your training is narrowly focused, too reliant on a specific tool or framework.
Some training will be focused on “leading” innovation, and will feature change management and leadership aspects of innovation. This training can be valuable, but even for leaders we stipulate that they must understand the full scope of innovation activities in order to lead innovation successfully.
The people who lead the training
Who leads your innovation training program is as important as the course content, if not more so. Instructors who are actively engaged in innovation projects and programs have far more experience and “real world” applications to describe the opportunities and challenges of implementing innovation as a capability. Understanding how a specific tool or methodology works is helpful; understanding how those tools work together in a system to create insight that drives valuable new ideas is invaluable. Individuals who have led innovation projects understand the subtle forces that work for, and against, innovation activities and can convey far more insight, information and lessons learned than those that simply describe a tool or technique. As you evaluate innovation training and certification options, learn more about the content and who developed the materials. Were innovation practitioners involved in the selection and development of the material? Then, consider who is delivering the material. Are the instructors people with real world innovation experience, or people who have read innovation best practice and now seek to teach it?
Look for instructors who have real world innovation experience. The subtle issues of innovation are as important as understanding the tools and methods.
Be selective when choosing an innovation training firm. Even firms that offer innovation consulting and training may have delegated the innovation training to individuals who have little real world innovation experience. Given the forces aligned against innovation, you need to learn from people who understand the tools and techniques, and who have worked to implement them in real world situations. It is not enough to learn the tools and methodologies in an academic setting; you must also understand the practical realities of implementing these tools and methods in corporate settings. Unless your instructor has that experience, you will miss a lot of the important but subtle nuances of innovation work.
Engaging, in-person, hands-on
Many innovation training programs offer web-based or self-paced training options. These should be evaluated very carefully. Online or self-paced tools can fill specific needs or offer insights when travel budgets are tight or deeper skill development is too costly, but you’ll soon find that innovation is a hands-on activity, and requires engagement with ideas and with other people. Learning in a virtual setting does not prepare an individual for what innovation activities are like in a corporate setting.
When you evaluate innovation training programs, look for programs that incorporate presentation combined with hands-on exercises which reinforce the learning. You should be able to work out an innovation challenge within the structure of innovation training, preferably with other people from your organization or at a minimum with people from other firms who are learning with you. Innovation is an immersive experience, requiring people to engage a range of tools and techniques across a range of activities, engaging with an ever-evolving set of participants. Innovation forces you to work in ways that often seem counter to much of your existing knowledge and training, and may call existing processes or products into question. Exercising these issues in a safe team environment with experienced instructors or facilitators is much more beneficial than watching a video about brainstorming on your PC. The experience you receive working through an issue with an experienced facilitator or the knowledge you gain interacting with others who are learning with you will be invaluable. For deep learning, an innovation training program should incorporate a capstone or innovation project based on an issue you have from your work experience. The more practical and the more realistic the challenge or problem that you exercise, the more learning you will take away from the training.
Innovation is inevitably a team activity, involving a number of different resources and perspectives and requiring the use of a range of tools and methodologies. Further, innovation forces teams to compromise, to discover and to work together in new ways and on new levels. Good training programs will involve innovation teams working together to resolve interesting, relevant innovation opportunities.
Body of Knowledge
Innovation is based on a deep body of knowledge and experience that few people take the time to explore and understand. Many of the “best practices” associated with idea generation are traceable to Alex Osborne, who wrote Applied Imagination in the 1950s. In many aspects the body of knowledge associated with innovation is older, and broader, than that associated with Six Sigma. However, since Six Sigma is based on statistical analysis and is often easily quantifiable, while innovation is not, Six Sigma is viewed as far more reliable and scientific. The body of knowledge associated with innovation is both broad and deep. As you evaluate innovation training and certification programs, you should investigate what sources your potential training partner turns to for advice and for deeper investigation.
Innovation has a body of knowledge that any respectable trainer should draw from and reference. No firm has a “lock” on innovation process or tools, so the training should draw broadly from many sources.
Any firm that claims to present an innovation training program based solely on its own intellectual property or that refuses to identify its sources is not trustworthy. Any reputable innovation consultant or trainer will tell you that innovation is an exceptionally broad topic, which is growing every year. Anyone leading an innovation training program should present material from a range of sources, and should communicate the source of the information and why they believe those sources are important. Any firm that cannot describe who Alex Osborn is, or what Creative Problem Solving is, or who Altshuller is and why TRIZ is important, should be held in suspicion. Ask to see the reference materials, source materials and the range of expert knowledge and opinion that any innovation training program is based on before you agree to participate. A good program should provide a list of materials or books that the instructors will use to augment or supplement the training. If the training firm states that the information they are using for training is based on their own work, ask to see the work they’ve published (books, white papers and so forth) and compare it to the training they offer.
Perhaps the most significant barrier to innovation training is the lack of an agreed innovation certification or “standard”. While many academic and innovation training programs offer innovation training programs and even “certification”, there is no governing body that has agreed on the knowledge and expertise for an innovation certificate. This means that any organization offering an innovation certification is defining the knowledge and materials completely on their own, based on their knowledge and biases. While other standards bodies define a body of knowledge that an individual must master before they achieve a specific level of mastery or certification, no broadly accepted innovation certification program or definition exists.
Until a standards body arises to define innovation skills and knowledge for specific roles, beware of certifications offered by trainers and academics. There is no agreed standard for innovation certification.
When you consider an innovation training program that offers a degree or certificate, examine what the expectations are and the information that must be mastered. Ask if other organizations recognize the certification. Recognize that until a common definition of innovation certification is developed and agreed within the innovation community, certifications probably aren’t all that valuable.
Our companies and markets need creative, innovative people now more than ever, due to market shifts, consumer demands and competitive forces. Yet there’s little focus on innovation and creativity in the educational system, so businesses must hire people with innovation and creativity experience or find reputable training programs to build the skills of existing employees. As the landscape shifts and innovation becomes more important, the innovation skills gap is apparent and increasing. And, since nature abhors a vacuum, many firms are rushing to offer innovation training services. Determining which programs offer innovation training or certification that is valuable is difficult if not impossible. In this paper I’ve attempted to identify at least five key criteria for your assessment:
- Innovation as a process rather than a deep focus on one tool or technique. Understanding the breadth and depth of innovation, as an end to end process and capability
- Experienced instructors, who have practical innovation experience as well as training experience. Be wary of instructors who are primarily academics who may lack real world experience.
- Active, hands-on training taught in a workshop style. Engaging, in person training exercising relevant and important challenges rather than an impersonal or theoretical training at a computer
- Building on and recognizing a deep body of knowledge from a range of experts
- Understanding the value of an innovation “certification”. Any certification program is defined by the issuer, not by a standards group or aligned to an accepted framework.
Time your innovation training to coincide with the beginning of an innovation project or activity. Innovation training that is not quickly implemented will go stale, and will be quickly forgotten.
Finally, there’s one other factor to consider. Good training goes to waste if it isn’t quickly implemented. The best innovation training in our estimation is “just in time” – that is, concurrent with an innovation activity or immediately preceding an innovation activity. This is because the focus of the rest of your business is on efficiency and maintaining status quo. New tools and techniques will atrophy quickly or face stiff opposition unless they are applied in short order to an important innovation challenge.
There’s no question that innovation is growing in importance as a skill set and competency. Over the next few years the demand for people with innovation skills and training will only increase, which means that many organizations are likely to enter the market offering innovation training. Be selective and intentional as you evaluate your training partners.